Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Soul of the Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Sy Montgomery herself, who has an incredible and excellent narrative voice.

You would not expect a book about octopuses (and indeed, it is "octpuses" rather than the much used but grammatically incorrect "octopi" - among many things I learned in this book) to be so beautifully contemplative and make you think about what it means to be human, to exist, to think and feel and love, but it most certainly does.  Everything the title and subtitle says is true, which is amazing in itself, because titles, and particularly subtitles, can often be misleading or even  distortions, stretching of truth.

The soul of the octopus - Montgomery's friendship - because that is exactly what it becomes - with three octopuses at the New England Aquarium, allows her, and then us, to ponder whether octopuses, and hence all animals, have souls.  Montgomery makes no bones about it; her long experience writing about and being around animals, and these particular animals, leads her to conclude that "I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul - and I think I do - an octopus has a soul too."  That's amazing stuff coming from a science and biology writer.  I think of scientists as dry, logical, android-like creatures, with faith only in proofs and theories, who have sucked the magic out of our existence and replaced it with technology and theorems, but not anything approaching the beautiful, soaring medieval faith of old.  I'm not a religious luddite who wants us to return to the time of burning witches and banning Galileo.    But I've thought quite a bit lately, on my drive to work and back, when I'm pondering life, the universe, and everything, that as many good things as science has done for us, there's plenty of things science has ruined too.  It was refreshing to read a science writer talking about "the soul" and "praying" and "the creator" and pondering the metaphysics of a creature we usually would put right above a kitchen sponge in thought and emotion.  Surprising, definitely.   A wonder, most definitely.  What a terrific book.  (and she quotes Richard Dawkins too).

Montgomery's prose is thoughtful and engaging.  I particularly liked this evocative passage:

“In her memoir of living among the Bushmen, The Old Way A Story of the First People, my friend Liz lovingly invokes an image first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: "You are standing beside your mother, holding her hand. She is holding her mother's hand, who is holding her mother's hand… " Eventually the line stretches three hundred miles long and goes back five mil-lion years, and the clasping hand of the ancestor looks like that of a chimpanzee. I loved picturing one of Octavia's arms stretching out to meet one of her mother's arms, and one of her mother's mother's arms, and her mother's mother's mother's, . . Suckered, elastic arms, reaching back through time: an octopus chorus line stretching not just hundreds, but many thousands of miles long. Back past the Cenozoic, the time when our ancestors descended from the trees; back past the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the land; back past the Permian and the rise of the ancestors of the mammals; back, past the Carboniferous's coal-forming swamp forests; back past the Devonian, when amphibians emerged from the water; back past the Silurian, when plants first took root on land—all the way to the Ordovician, to a time before the advent of wings or knees or lungs, before the fishes had bony jaws, before blood pumped from a multi-chambered heart. More than 500 million years ago, the tides would have been stronger, the days shorter, the year longer, and the air too high in carbon dioxide for mammals or birds to breathe. All the earth's continents huddled in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet still, the arm of Octavia's ancestor, sensitive, suckered, and supple, would have been recognizable as one of an octopus.”

There is a narrative story in this book; it's not simply the natural history of the octopus (Sy Montgomery, you're no Grzimek).  Each chapter builds upon Montgomery's growing love and fascination with the octopus, her volunteer work at the New England Aquarium, her growing knowledge base of octopuses (as well as her growing skill base of working with octopuses), and her wonderment at their intelligence.  Each chapter also seems to explore either specific parts of an octopus's life cycle (birth, old age, death) or some biological aspect of the octopus (food, sex) but Montgomery injects philosophical ideas that make you ponder your own birth, death, friendships, love, soul.

The particular passages towards the end about dementia hit me particularly hard.

So many books today about animals are alarmist, scary, and deeply depressing.  The world is going to hell in handbasket, and I'm not sure normal, every day  people can do a fucking thing about it anymore.  I love animals and nature, and I despise the way the world is going.  But I also get deeply upset reading about it, feeling hopeless. It was a nice change, a guilty pleasure, to read a book that wasn't so doom and gloom about the future of biology on our planet.

Also, luckily, I don't like eating octopus.  Now squid is another thing altogether.

I didn't realize, until I started reading reviews on Goodreads, the political petticoats in a bunch about aquariums and zoos.  The Harambe of it all.  Bleah.  I still liked the book, and thought it was thoughtful and contemplative.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I listened to the audio version of this book, excellently narrated by Sy Montgomery herself. The entire experience was a thoughtful one, and I learned more about octopuses (including the correct grammatical plural spelling) than I ever thought I even needed to know. What I particularly liked about this book was the idea that animals, like us, have souls. I vaguely knew that octopuses are "intelligent" animals, but put them somewhere between a kitchen sponge and my dog. Little did I know, until reading this book, that they are intelligent, inquisitive, caring creatures - and really quite interesting. I also liked how Montgomery's narrative wasn't simply the natural history of the octopus a la Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, but rather a true exploration of what it means to not only be an octopus, but what it means to be a human as well. Surprising, yes. A wonder, yes.

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